In cities across the country, the presence of criminal street gangs is typically not hard to identify through the presence and proliferation of gang-specific graffiti, high rates of narcotics sales and trafficking and violence. The police know who the street gangs are in their command and so does the community for the most part, so why is there such reluctance by police departments to identify gang-related crime and affiliations to the media?
Traditionally, the thinking has been if criminal acts or suspect gang affiliation is released it will empower the gang through the notoriety it is receiving in the media. What is actually occurring through this ostensible news blackout is exactly what is trying to be avoided. If you don’t recognize the problem, it won’t go away. Media blackout of the gang affiliation lends the perception that police do not know who is committing the crimes as well as potentially impeding tips from the community. The community may not know the name of a specific individual, but they usually know the gangs and where they hang out. There needs to be a paradigm shift with this line of thinking.
The historic relationship between law enforcement and the media has been tenuous at best but when they work cooperatively and strategically together, there are mutual benefits not only shared by both entities but, most importantly, the public wellbeing.
On May 29, The Chicago Tribune reported a 20-year-old rapper was murdered after recording a song insulting rival gangs. Police told the paper the rapper was a Gangster Disciple in the Uptown neighborhood plagued by rivalries between the Conservative Vice Lords, the Gangster Disciples and the Black P Stones.
The information obtained by The Tribune was not released from the command level. The Chicago PD’s Public Information Office’s policy is not to release the names of gangs associated with crimes. According to an editor for The Tribune, that information was likely obtained on the street level.
Ironically, federal agencies, such as Homeland Security Investigations, typically release gang affiliation. This bewilders veteran Chicago crime reporter Jeremy Gorner.
“I think it’s kind of strange that municipal departments don’t but the feds do,” Gorner said. “If agencies are so quick to release terror group affiliations, then why not gangs?”
Gorner says that failing to release gang affiliations leaves the public guessing as to who is committing crime in their neighborhood, who to protect their children from, or what criminal elements are now coming into a neighborhood.
“I don’t see the harm in educating the community as to the root causes of crime and if gangs are committing them,” Gorner said.
This is a valid point. While gangs in many cities still claim territorial roots, many have transcended this model to operate in other areas to take advantage of narcotic sale opportunities.
The need for a closer relationship between the media and law enforcement in gang prevention and suppression can’t be ignored. There are more than 33,000 recognized street and outlaw motorcycle gangs in the U.S. Many police departments are facing staffing shortages where they are barely able to maintain a reasonable response time for basic calls for service, let alone the implementation of strategic gang prevention initiatives. Yet, many community officials attempt to quash any reference to a “gang problem” in their community because of the adverse impact it can have on the local economy. These are not strategies to address gang related enterprises such as drug and human trafficking, extortion, and violence.
This policy is frequently shared by law enforcement. The impression of many departments is not to release the gang affiliation of a suspect out of concern it provides that gang with unwarranted publicity and empowerment.
One area commander, who declined to provide his name, said educating the public by using the media is a good idea.
Cara Tabachnick, a veteran crime reporter and deputy director of the Center for Media, Crime and Justice at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York agrees.
“If releasing the gang affiliation is germane to an arrest or the public safety, it can create a greater level of trust in what the police are doing to assure their safety and enhance collaborative relationships,” Tabachnick said.
Rather than an unwelcome inconvenience, the media can be seen and used as a force multiplier empowering the community to cooperate more readily with police. Gorner agrees that this relationship can open untapped avenues and resources among community members.
Implementing an open dialogue with media sources to identify gangs in a community can be done while still protecting an investigation. Adhere to professional rules of ethics but still, within the confines of an investigation, refer to the suspect’s gang affiliation as “alleged,” “suspected,” or “reputed.” Many times the affiliation will be admitted to by the suspect.
Releasing gang affiliation to media upon arrest of suspects demonstrates a target specific effort by police. The community knows there are gangs. Ignoring the issue contributes to community apathy. Demonstrating that gangs are being dismantled/disrupted will improve community relations and cooperation. Once the community is involved and better informed, they will be more apt to provide information.
Joseph J. Kolb, M.A., is program manager for the New Mexico Gang Task Force and an Adjunct Instructor in the Criminal Justice Department at Western New Mexico University.